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Necessary Infrastructure or Technocratic Tinkering?

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that debates between national education experts are good things. They are almost always interesting, often helpful, and unfailingly entertaining for little policy geeks like myself. Maybe that’s why I was so excited to see two of my favorites, Andy Smarick from Bellweather Education Partners and Jason Bedrick from the Cato Institute, spar a little over the need for “technocrats” in school choice.

Because I am five years old, I feel compelled to point out before we begin that I chuckled at the word “technocrat.” I chuckled not because it’s a funny concept, and not because I don’t like technocrats (well, generally speaking), but because it sounds very similar to “technoCATS.” And because it gave me an opportunity to finally put this in a blog post:

I certainly hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Now, back to edu-business.

The debate over whether we need (or should want) technocrats in school choice and education reform began when Andy Smarick posted a blog entitled School Choice Technocrats Wanted. His argument? That school reform and school choice themselves require policy-based (and likely government-run) frameworks in which to operate. Those frameworks, in turn, require technocrats to make them work. From his piece:

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.

Andy provides four big areas in which the need for technocratic input may be highest: Creating a system of great schools for families to choose among, dealing with the inevitable transportation issues that arise in choice scenarios, aggregating and providing information, and moving the government from a monopoly provider role into something more akin to a “system manager.”

Jason Bedrick fired back with his own piece, arguing that we should be cautious when calling for technocrats in school choice. We don’t, after all, want to simply recreate the same inefficient bureaucratic system we are attempting to reform. As Jason puts it:

Smarick is surely right that the transition from the monopolistic system of geographically assigned district schools to a market in education will require “new policies” and “a new understanding of the government’s role” in education. However, Smarick is murky on who will be making those policies or what exactly government’s role should be. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene recently cautioned, education reformers must avoid “pursuing reforms that are likely to re-create the same dysfunctional system they oppose.”

Smarick himself appears to recognize this danger. After outlining several areas where he believes government should play a role–supporting “high-performing” charter schools, addressing transportation needs, disseminating information, and “creating bodies to hold schools accountable; clarify school eligibility rules; develop central application, placement, and enrollment systems; and ensure the highest-need students are served”–Smarick notes: “If the above is done poorly, it could lead to the replacement of one inflexible, ineffective bureaucracy by another.” Indeed.

Given the government’s track record thus far, why should we have any confidence that these policies will be implemented well? Smarick doesn’t say.

So what does Little Eddie think? Well, I think they’re both right. Smarick is right to argue that new systems will need to be created in reformed education environments, and that these systems will fundamentally alter the role of government in education. Making that work will require a great deal of technical expertise. On the other hand, Jason is completely correct to draw a distinction between using an understanding of policy to drive educational freedom and succumbing to the temptation to regulate school choice systems in ways that strangle them. Yes, Little Eddie can be diplomatic when he wants to be. Don’t get used to it.

I strongly encourage you to read both pieces. You’ll come out smarter and better equipped to face one of the most important debates in school choice.